Chapter 7 — There´s a first time for everything

28 06 2009

Zabe is shocked by how much she misses Ash.

He misses Midwinter Night. He disappears after every class. He doesn’t eat with them, he doesn’t do outside work with them, he doesn’t exercise with them or hike up to the north valley with them in their free time. When Zabe sees him – which is rarely, because he doesn’t seem to attend any classes except Dr. Levi’s – he’s subdued. He doesn’t look at her and when she tries to sit next to him, he quietly asks her to please move. When she doesn’t, he stands up and goes to the opposite side of the room.

Not even the other Year Fifteens, who have the voracious tendency to gossip that every small group with a minimum of true drama does, seem to want to touch on Ash’s strange behavior. They talk about it in hushed circles, far beyond the realm of the school, up in the hills and away in the north valley. Zabe does not share with them what she knows about the situation, but they somehow know that she was there. Her silence sets her even further apart from them than before, and just when she thinks that she should be old enough not to be hurt by it, her loneliness intensifies. It cuts through everything else and leaves her exhausted at the start of every day.

Finally she gives in, and seeks out Ash, following him after he leaves Dr. Levi’s classroom until she corners him outside the school’s carpentry workshop. It feels weird, to be back so close to Lady Vallance’s office, but when he turns and sees her his face freezes and she knows that she won’t be able to get him to talk to her anywhere else.

“I’m not supposed to talk to you.”

They’re the first words he’s said to her in months. She steps towards him and asks, “Who says?”

“You know,” he replies. “The powers that be.”

“Well, I don’t care. Why are you avoiding me?”

For a second, Ash looks exasperated, but then it’s gone and is replaced by a kind of resignation. “I just told you,” he says, more gently. “I’m not supposed to talk to you.”

“Well, can’t we talk anyway?”

“No,” he says, “I’m sorry, but we can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I’m already in a lot of trouble. I’d prefer not to be in any more.”

Months ago, Zabe would have gotten angry and waved her hands in the air and told him to stop worrying and stop being scared of trouble and authority and teachers. Now, however, something in his attitude chills her. “Ash…”

“What?”

She tries her last gambit. “What about your parents?”

“What about them?”

“What if they aren’t dead?”

He shrugs. “I don’t really care either way.”

Zabe stares at him. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I mean,” he says, looking at the floor, “I don’t think they are dead. But really, really Zabe. I don’t care.” He shifts his weight, fiddles with the books in his hands. “I’ve got to go.”

He disappears down the corridor, and once again Zabe is left alone.

********************************************************************

So Zabe goes detecting She wants to break into Lady Vallance’s office and find Ash, but she knows that she needs to find a roundabout way. One night after dinner, when there is only a thin slice of moon to give light, she goes scouting around the outside of the building where Lady Vallance’s office is. Like most of the buildings in the valley, it is built on log stilts, high enough above the ground that an adult can stand beneath them by hunching. Unlike any of the other buildings, however, this one extends backwards into the face of the rock that juts out from the particularly steep mountainside behind it. The trees have been cleared away to create a firebreak and the ugly scar where the log sides of the building meet the stone face of the mountain is a white streak of some stretchy mortar. Zabe approaches from the outside, rather than from the bridge, and looks at the scar, hoping for a way inside.

Zabe notices, then, that even though the building is raised up on stilts, there is a part of it that is below the bottom line of the bridge. She creeps forward and sees a low-slung extension set into the rock. Unlike the log and stone upper floors, this is matte black, with the occasional tiny, star-like glint. She crouches down and crawls along the ground until she comes to its base. It appears to be nothing more than a wall of tight wire mesh, painted black but worn in places, with no doors or windows.

Something creaks, and Zabe stands in panic. She knows that no one standing in the meadow can see her – she’s below their line of sight – but she is standing in a large subterranean space and feels exposed. She backs up against the mesh and then leaps forward as the ground suddenly opens in front of her.

It’s dark enough that she can’t quite tell what’s happened – just that a hole of harsh, greenish light seems to be hovering near her feet – until someone’s head appears in the hole. It’s a boy, maybe a few years older than her. They stare at each other for several seconds before he says:

“Zabe?”

“How do you know my name?”

“Look, come down here, ok? I promise I won’t turn you in if you do.”

He sounds as unsure and scared as she feels. She thinks she could make a run for it, but she doesn’t know where she’d go. Plus, she’s intrigued. She’s never seen him before, and in a valley this small, that’s almost more startling than where they are.

“Ok,” she says.

She walks to the hole. He offers her his hand but she can see that he’s standing on a table, so she motions him out of the way and then drops herself down. As she lands, she feels the table wobble, and he reaches out and grabs her arm.

“Hop down, quick, I don’t think this thing is meant to be stood on.”

She puts a hand on his shoulder and steps down into a coil of wires. She looks along the floor and sees wires everywhere, multi-colored, fat and small, snaking away from the small room she’s standing in and out through a narrow corridor.

“What is this place?” she asks. “Why is there a trap door with no ladder?”

“It’s the emergency escape,” he says. “No one’s supposed to go in or out of it.” She watches him climb up onto the table and bring down the door. He’s skinny – she might even go so far as to say scrawny – and his wrists sticking out of his sleeves are knobbly with bone. She guesses that he’s seventeen or eighteen, but if he’s a student, she’s never seen him before. His face and hands and the bare feet that peek out from underneath his trouser cuffs are pale.

“Except in an emergency,” she says.

“Yeah, well,” he hops down from the table with a “huff”, “there’s not supposed to be emergencies.” He brushes his hands off. His eyes are on the floor and his head is turned away from her. “I’ve got to go up top and fix that now, I’ll be right back, ok? Please just stand here and don’t touch anything.”

Zabe rolls her eyes. “You know my name, so chances are that you know I’m not about to follow your orders, either.”

“Please, Zabe,” he says. “I promise, when I get back – which will be in just a few minutes – I will show you everything you want to see. Just please don’t go walking around without me. We could both get in big, big trouble if you do.”

“Oh fine,” Zabe says. She plops down on the table and crosses her legs, the picture of boredom. He gets the picture and leaves, following the wires into the narrow corridor. She hears a shuffling noise and there’s a rush of cold air, and then something heavy shuts and she’s all alone.

She’s in what must be an anteroom. It’s tiny and the walls have gleaming white tiles on them. The greenish light that she saw when the trapdoor opened comes from the long tube of lighting on the ceiling reflecting off of all those tiny tiles. She’s never seen a tube of light before, and she doesn’t know how the fire inside of it is getting its oxygen. She theorizes that it’s mixed with another gas that also gives it that greenish color, but it’s kind of a scary thing to look at and she doesn’t like it.

All around her, there’s a subtle electrical hum. It’s like being in the pump station at the lake, but so much quieter that it’s almost a background thought. She looks down at the thick coils of wire and sees that they all disappear underneath the table. She hops down and bends over, following them with her eyes into a hole in the mosaic wall. She crawls forward and sticks her hand into the hole, but all she can feel is the wires, receding away from her.

“I don’t know where that goes,” the boy’s voice says. “To the pump station, in some cases, but as for the rest of it, I have no idea.”

Zabe emerges from underneath the table and faces him. “What is this place?” she asks, fascinated.

“Oh,” he says. He’s looking at the floor again. “It’s sort of like… the information center for the school, I guess.”

“What’s down the hall?” she asks. “What were you doing outside? How do you know my name? Who set this up? Where do the wires come into the pump house? I’ve seen the pump house, I didn’t see any places where the wires would come. Anyway if they’re drawing power off the dam, they must go through somewhere else…”

“There’s two pump houses,” he says.

Zabe blinks. The thought that there might be two pumps houses – two places taking power from the dam – well, she doesn’t know what to think about that. “Where’s the second one?”

“I’m not sure. I can just see the interior.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh,” he says, “I mean, that’s where the camera is focused. There’s no camera on the exterior.”

Zabe stares at him. “Camera?”

“Yeah.”

“You’ve never been there.”

It’s not a question, but he answers anyway.

“No…”

“Do you have cameras in other places?”

“Oh, yeah, everywhere.”

Zabe feels like her world is shifting around and falling on its side – or, more specifically, like it is falling onto the side it was supposed to be on in the first place. “Show me them,” she says.

“I… well, I really…”

“Hey,” she says. He finally looks up at her and she steps forward until they are very close together. She’s gratified to see that they are nearly the same height, since she’s wearing her snow boots. “I’m down here now. You just told me all about it. If you don’t want me to talk about it…”

He winces. “Please don’t.”

“What’s my incentive not to?”

“Well,” he says, “I could tell Dr. Levi. Or even Lady Vallance. And then you would be in really, really big trouble.”

Zabe frowns. “Like I’m scared of them.”

“You should be,” he says. “They’re not… well, they wouldn’t care about taking you out into the wilderness and leaving you behind, if you know what I mean.”

“I could survive,” Zabe says. “And you’re not very good at threatening me, you know. What’s your name?”

“Orri,” he says. “But don’t tell anyone about me, or about this, please Zabe, I mean it. They’ll take you out and shoot you, don’t you understand?”

“Would they do that if they knew I knew about it?” she asks. “Or just if I told?”

He shakes his head. “Come with me.” He leads her out of the room and down the corridor. The white tiles give way to a rough stone wall, and they walk for several yards before the wires along the floor branch away and they enter another room. This one is much larger, and much darker, with an entire wall of black and white shifting images.

“This is where the camera outputs go,” Orri says.

Zabe is floored. Her only experience with boxes is the big ones in the library that barely work. Ash claims that they don’t do anything that boxes are supposed to do, and all they ever do with them is put numbers into them with pens and wait while they perform calculations. Now she’s confronted with this wall of hundreds of tiny moving, changing images and the blink and hum of boxes so advanced that she’s never even read about them. She steps forward and touches the wall with her hand – it’s cool to the touch – and she realizes that it’s just another white tile wall, and that the images are being projected from above her. She looks up and sees a line of boxes on a shelf two feet above her head, with narrow beams of light spilling out and onto the wall from their narrow ends.

“You’re from the Desert Lore, aren’t you?” Orri asks quietly. “You’ve probably never seen boxes like this.”

“No,” she admits. She forces herself to turn away and look at him. “How do you know so much about me?”

He pulls a tiny box out of his pocket and sticks it onto a digipad. Taking up the pen, he writes her name and then draws a sharp line across it. The hundreds of tiny images fade and in the centre is a picture of her, aged eleven, standing by the ruined apartment building in the middle of the desert. Beside the picture it says her full name, and then there’s row upon row of smaller text below that, but when she squints at it, she sees that it is written in a non-Standard language.

“What does it say about me?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” Orri says. “I can’t read it either.”

“What is it written in?”

“I don’t know.”

Zabe rounds on him. “I have about a thousand questions right now, Orri.”

He pulls out a chair and offers it to her. “Shoot.”

“But are we safe?” she asks. “Can I be down here?”

“No one ever comes down here,” he says. “And on the off chance that someone does – because occasionally Lady Vallance or Dr. Levi might, but we really try to keep people from coming in and out of here because of the delicate equipment – this little screen here will flash.” While he’s been talking, her image and information has faded away and the tiny images are back. He touches the lowest one in the right column. “It’s good to have a bit of warning,” he adds.

“Do you live down here?” she asks.

“Sometimes. When Lady Vallance is here. I go wherever she goes.”

“Why?”

“Um, just do. I work for her.”

“How did you get the job?”

“I just did. I’ve had it for years.”

“But you’re not that old.”

“Well, I guess I’ve had it for eight years.”

Zabe is shocked. “How old are you?”

“Seventeen,” he says. “But it’s not too tough. Just monitoring things. Taking down interesting information. The boxes do most of it anyway.”

“But who ever looks at this stuff?”

“No one, unless they need to.”

“How would they know they needed to?”

“Well, the data gets analyzed to see who speaks with whom, who spends the most time with whom, where people spend their time, all that kind of stuff. Patterns build up. And then when new patterns emerge – or anomalies – that’s when someone has to start looking at it. So I do that. And if the anomalies are too weird, well, then I call in Dr. Levi.”

“Give me an example of an anomaly.”

“Oh, I guess… when you and Ash had that fight on the bridge. It wasn’t anomalous that it was you and Ash together – that was a normal pattern until a few months ago – but where you were was extremely anomalous. Students are not supposed to be there. So alarm bells started ringing and I took note of where you were and alerted Lady Vallance, who then dealt with the situation.”

“Where are the cameras set up?”

“Oh, all around the school. All over the valley really. On the inside of the lookout, at the pump houses, at the solar panels, and at various places around the lake. I tried to put one in the abandoned mine in the north valley but the wind took it down so I gave up.”

“Why have one inside the lookout? Why bother to have a lookout at all, in fact, if you have these cameras?”

“Well, they’re not very high resolution. It could detect a large wildfire, but not smaller things.”

Zabe plays dumb. “Like what?”

“You know, human activity in the valley.”

“What kind of human activity?”

“Other people, of course,” Orri says. “People from outside the school. Come on, you must know they’re out there.”

Zabe did not know they’re out there, but now she does. “Is that what the Year Nineteens are monitoring in the winter?”

“I guess,” Orri says. “I’m not sure. No one really tells me anything. I just figure stuff out based on what I see.”

“So you’re not up there with Lady Vallance or Dr. Levi.”

“No,” Orri says. “I’m just a tool. Just like you.”

“Thanks,” Zabe says. She looks back at the images. “So most of your stuff is inside. So you can’t see the meadows very well, or anything else wild.”

“Right. The cameras are much better up close than they are far away. I’ve experimented building a camera to monitor the big meadow areas, but it’s not very good. Also, there’s nowhere really unobtrusive to mount it.”

“So what about the stuff that we do when we are outside? How do you monitor that?”

“Well,” Orri says, “Most of the watching has to go on when you’re younger. After Year Sixteen, you all start spending too much time in the wilderness and away from the cameras for us to actually monitor you well.” He pauses and then adds, “You could do anything then, really.”

“It seems like you don’t really like them, Orri,” she says.

“Oh,” he says quickly, “I’m not sure about that. I don’t think like is really the way… well, it’s just not how I would describe it. But I guess that I feel a lot for the students. I mean, I watch you guys all the time. I can’t help it.”

Zabe shivers. It’s warm in the room but what Orri’s saying is creepy and weird and also intriguing. “So is that why you know who I am? That and the file?”

“Yeah.”

“And there’s a camera up there, near where I was scratching around?”

“Right.”

“So why didn’t you alert Lady Vallance? I assume that’s code red.”

“Oh.” Orri blushes and looks at his hands. “I guess I just wanted to talk to someone.”

Zabe’s not sure what to say to that. She changes the subject. “So what’s up with the wall out there? It’s made of really weird stuff.”

“It’s for attenuation,” Orri says. “We want to block anyone from knowing we’re here. Unfortunately, in the design for this room, part of it had to be above ground. That wasn’t my design and I think I could do it better now but that’s all right.”

“Who did design it?”

Orri hesitates before he says, “I don’t know.”

“Liar.”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s weird,” he says.

“Orri,” she says, leaning forward. “You live in a hole in the ground with a bunch of really advanced boxes. You’ve been watching me brush my teeth and get dressed for four years. Isn’t that already kind of weird?”

“There’s no cameras in the bathrooms,” Orri says. He’s blushing more. “Really, I guess it is kind of weird, but it’s just… well, it’s what I do. Like you’re a student. Lady Vallance and Dr. Levi get me to do it and I’m good at it so I do it.”

“Ok,” Zabe says. “Don’t worry about it.” She tugs off her coat and boots and folds her legs up underneath her. “It’s really warm in here.”

“You should feel it in summer,” he says with a smile. “Boxes give off a lot of heat.”

She turns her head and looks at the wall of images. She figures out where most of them are quickly, but there are a few that she doesn’t recognize. In one of them, she can see big wall with writing on it, and a lot of people moving in front of it. “Where’s this?” she asks.

“You’re not supposed to see that,” Orri says. He sounds nervous.

“I’m not supposed to see any of this,” she reminds him. “So where is it?”

“I really can’t tell you,” he says.

“Why are there limits to what you can tell me?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “Because I’m scared of getting in trouble.”

“You said it’s just a job for you.”

“But something terrible could happen to you. And anyway, it’s not like the kind of job I can get fired from.”

“Why do you care what happens to me?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “You seem nice.”

She laughs. “No one’s ever said that to me before.”

“Well, I see you when no one’s watching.”

“That’s really kind of creepy,” Zabe says.

“It’s not my fault,” Orri says. “It’s what I’m supposed to do.”

“But if you don’t like it, why do you keep doing it?”

“I have to,” Orri says. “Please, I can’t explain it to you right now.”

“Fine,” Zabe says, “whatever.”

They sit in silence for a few minutes while Zabe scans through all of the images, noting down how many of them are unfamiliar. Her eyes are constantly drawn towards the one with all of the people. She wants to read the writing but too many people keep standing in front of it. Then she finds an image she recognizes: Ash, lying in a bed in a room that she doesn’t know. He looks asleep but his arms are strapped down. She remembers what she forgot in the excitement of finding this place: that she’s here to rescue Ash.

“What’s going on here?” she demands, standing and pointing.

Orri does something with the digipad so that the image of Ash expands to cover half the wall. “He’s being medicated.”

“With what?”

“I don’t know,” Orri says. “I think it’s this stuff that regulates his moods.”

“What?”

Orri reaches into a container sitting on the ground and pulls out a bottle of tiny colored capsules. Zabe takes it and opens it, spilling a handful into her palm. They are green at one end and pink at the other. “What are these?” she asks.

“They’re pills,” Orri says. “You swallow them and they do something to your body.”

“What do they do?” Zabe asks.

“Well, different pills do different things. These make you forget things that make you unhappy. They’re not nice, but sometimes things just get too much and… people need them.”

Zabe touches the pills with her finger. They feel slightly clammy. “Can you hear things with the cameras?”

“Some of them. Why?”

“Did you hear what Ash and I were arguing about before you turned us in to Lady Vallance?”

“I didn’t turn you in…”

“Yeah, but did you hear?”

“He thought that his parents were still alive.”

“Exactly. And when I saw him earlier today, he told me that he didn’t care either way but that he didn’t think they were!”

Orri shrugs. “That’s what the pills will do to you.”

Zabe gets upset. “So they’re stealing memories from Ash!”

“Probably,” Orri admits. “But if he’s happier…”

“He’s not happier! He’s nothing! He has literally no emotions!”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Orri says. “That’s what happens with the pills.”

“Do you take them?” Zabe asks.

“Only sometimes.”

“Why?”

Orri shrugs. “Sometimes I just want to forget things.”

“Things you see?”

His glance strays towards the wall of images. “Sometimes, yeah.”

Zabe crouches down in front of him. “Hey, Orri.”

He looks down at her. “What?”

“You don’t have to keep doing this.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you could help the students instead.”

“Oh,” Orri says, suddenly uncomfortable, “no, I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“I just… I can’t.”

“But I came here looking for help.”

“You didn’t know you’d meet me.”

“No,” Zabe agrees, “but I was desperate. I didn’t know where I’d get help from at all. It’s good luck that I met you.”

“Is it?” Orri asks. “But now you know some of the secrets of the school.”

“I was going to find them out anyway,” Zabe says softly. “Now, Orri, will you help me?”

He hesitates. “How can I help you?”

“No one will let me speak to Ash,” she says. “We’re forbidden. I don’t know where he is when we aren’t in classes because he’s being sent somewhere strange. I just want to talk to him about these pills. That’s all that I want. Please tell me how I can do that.”

Orri glances up at the images again and winces. “I’m really not supposed to.”

“Let me do something for you,” Zabe implores. “Can I bring you anything? Do you want someone to show you to the lookout? You look like you never get out.”

Orri looks at her. “It would be nice to go outside.”

“Ok,” Zabe says. “Let’s go outside.”

“Right now?” His face is suddenly panicked.

“When else?”

“I don’t know. Not right now.”

“Why not?”

Orri looks around the room. “I don’t know.”

“How do you get here?”

“On the helicopter.”

“And you come straight down here?”

“Yes.”

“Well you’ve got to see it then. It’s beautiful.”

Orri shakes his head. “I can’t go outside,” he says. “Not right now. Wait a while. Come back and see me.”

“That sounds like a trap,” Zabe says, standing up.

“Wait, please,” Orri says. “I promise it isn’t. I’m just… I can’t go outside. Not right now.” His hands are shaking and he reaches out and takes the pill bottle back from her. “I’m afraid of it.”

“Only because you’ve never been out there before,” she says.

“No,” he says. “I don’t think so. I can’t tell you why now.”

She waves her hand. “Oh, this again.”

“Zabe…”

She gets impatient. “Then tell me to do something else. Whatever you want. I’ll do it. Just tell me where and when I can talk to Ash without being watched.””

Orri places the pill bottle back in the container very carefully and looks up at her. “I know what you can do.”

“Ok.”

He takes a deep breath. “Kiss me.”

Zabe raises her eyebrows at him. “That’s it? Just a kiss?”

Orri’s eyes widen. “Yes.”

“Just one?”

“Yes.”

“Promise?”

“Yes!”

She considers, then shrugs. “Ok. How?”

Orri stares at her. “I thought you weren’t supposed to.”

“We can kiss each other,” Zabe says, rolling her eyes. “We can do lots of stuff. There’s only one thing we can’t do, and that sounds stupid anyway.”

Orri clears his throat. “Ok. Really? Are you sure? I don’t want to make you.” He pauses and watches Zabe’s face. “I mean, I’ll probably tell you where you can find Ash anyway.”

Orri’s nice to look at, Zabe thinks. The second she thinks it, her heart starts pounding in her chest. “Well, you asked for it,” she says, feeling inane. “Don’t give away your information too easily.”

“Ok,” Orri says. He licks his lips. “I mean, I’d like to kiss you anyway.”

“Ok,” she agrees. She’s still standing there, and she doesn’t know what to do. Should she bend down to him? Should she put her hands on either side of him, on the arms of his chair, and push him back against the wall? She wants to, but it seems like it might be kind of weird. She might slip. “So… I think you should stand up.”

Orri stands up. He steps on her foot a little bit and mumbles, “Sorry.”

“It’s ok,” she says. She puts a hand on each of his arms and pulls him closer to her. He smells nice, she thinks, for someone who lives in a dark room underground. She’s not sure what she expected him to smell like. “You smell nice,” she says.

“I didn’t know I’d get compliments too,” he says. He sounds out of breath. “Is this how I should stand?”

“Yes,” Zabe says, not wanting to admit that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. “That’s how people always stand when I kiss them.”

“How many people have you kissed?” Orri asks. His face is so close to hers, she can’t focus on both of his eyes at once. “Have you kissed Ash?”

“No,” she says.

“Why not?”

“Shh,” she says. “I’m going to kiss you now.” She shuts her eyes, puckers her lips, and moves forward for what feels like an eternity.

And then, just when she thinks that she’s going to have to stop and start again from a shorter trajectory, their lips touch, and give way to mouths, and they stand for a long time like that, barely moving, breathing together. Zabe opens her eyes and looks at Orri’s fine-veined eyelids, the line of his nose and the pale skin across his cheeks. Then he opens his eyes and she steps away from him and drops his arms. They stand facing each other for a few moments before he says, “That was so… good.”

“Was it?” she asks. She suddenly feels shy.

“Zabe,” he says, stepping forward. He catches her arm and moves to kiss her again but she darts away.

“Just one kiss,” she says, not sure why she’s stopping him. “You promised.”

Orri steps back. “I did.”

“And you’re the creepy boy who lives underground, and watches me brush my teeth.”

“You have beautiful teeth,” he says to her, “but I never see you brushing them. No cameras there, remember? You can find Ash when he goes to have his shower tonight. I’ll let you know when.”

She looks up at him, wide-eyed. “How will you let me know?”

He hands her a tiny box. “I’ll send you a message on this,” he says. “I’ll let you know which shower, too.”

“Thank you, Orri,” she says.

“Can I talk to you other ways with it?” he asks her. “I get so lonely down here.”

“Ok,” she says. “I should go now, though. I’ve been down here for an hour.”

“I know,” he says. “You’re right.”

She puts on her coat and snow boots, and he leads her into a different, shorter corridor, and to a door. There is a complicated security pad next to it and he punches in a code too fast for her to see. The door opens and snow starts to blow in, onto his bare feet. “Goodbye, Zabe,” he says to her, and she ducks out into the snow. A storm is starting, fitfully blowing the old snow up to her chest and bringing with it a bitter wind. She turns to look at him as the door shuts and he smiles at her and raises one hand in a wave.

********************************************************************

When she gets back to the dormitories, she sticks the tiny box underneath her sheets, undresses, and crawls into bed. With the heavy blanket over her head, she touches the screen and instantly two messages slide up, one from immediately after she left and the second from just a few minutes ago:

“Thank you for the kiss.”

“I think I’m in love with you.”

She rolls onto her back and tries to stop her heart from pounding again. She feels lightheaded and sick to her stomach. She can still feel his lips on hers and it makes her feel like she has a secret so powerful that her whole body must be glowing. She doesn’t want anyone to see her, because it must be written across her skin.

She holds up the box and, fumbling with the tiny built-in digipad, writes with her finger:

“You’re silly. Hardly know me. When should I come see you again? Have to return this thing for its charge.”

He replies, “I have to leave again soon. Keep it off and only turn it on at bedtime to get messages.”

And then, a second later:

“Ash is on his way. He’s going to the shower by the ugly statue.”

Zabe knows exactly the one. Lights are off in the dormitory now, so she stands, wraps herself in her coat, drops the box into her pocket, and creeps out of the room. Once outside, she runs down the corridor in bare feet. They’re allowed to be out after hours now that they’re in Year Fifteen but it’s still a strange novelty for Zabe. She comes to the statue – it’s a bronze guy in a funny hat on a horse, and it is just ugly – and stops in front of the showers. Someone is definitely in there. She pulls out the box. There’s already a message:

“I can’t see, you’re standing in front of the camera. It’s in the hat.”

She twists and looks at the statue. She can’t see anything strange about the hat.

“I can’t tell. Where is it? And is that Ash in there?”

“It’s in there. The cameras are tiny, of course! That’s Ash.”

“Thank you.”

“I still think I’m in love with you.”

She reaches out and touches the brim of the hat, stroking her hand down it. She doesn’t know if that accomplishes anything, but she needs to touch something. Then she turns and opens the door to the shower room.

“Somebody’s in here,” Ash calls out.

“I know,” she says, “because I’m looking for you.” She shuts the door behind her and stands in the space in front of the shower curtain. Ash’s clothes are in a bundle on the seat and his towel is hanging on the back of the door. The room is steamy. She takes off her coat and sits on the seat in her underwear.

“It’s hot in here!” she says.

The shower curtain opens slightly and Ash peeks out. “Zabe?” he asks.

“Of course,” she says.

“Are you naked?” he asks.

“Self-evidently not,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I said it was hot in here.”

“You’re not supposed to be in here.”

“I know.”

“Then why are you?”

“I’m worried about you.”

“Yeah, I got that earlier today. But aren’t we just going to get in trouble?”

“They can’t see us here,” she blurts out.

Ash shuts off the water and says, “Give me my towel.”

She hands it to him and a moment later he steps out of the shower wrapped in it. She starts to feel self-conscious in her underwear, but the room is oppressively hot and humid. She pulls her coat on anyway.

“What do you mean ‘they can’t see us here’?” Ash asks.

“They’ve got cameras,” Zabe says, “everywhere in the school, watching us. But not here. I found out.”

Ash exhales. “Thank god,” he says.

That is not the response Zabe was expecting. “What?”

“I knew they were watching me somehow, but I didn’t know how. Cameras make sense, but I didn’t know they had the technology for it. I guess I should have known.” He sits beside her. “Damn. Well. How did you find out?”

“I went digging around,” she says. The new information she knows is bursting to come out of her; she feels bold and a little bit crazy. “I went and looked underneath the building that Lady Vallance’s office is in. I was trying to look for a way to break in during your session with her. Instead I found this secret room built underground. It’s got all of these boxes and they’ve got cameras and everything.”

“Didn’t you get caught, or in trouble, or something?” Ash asks, horrified.

“Yeah, sort of. But it wasn’t bad.” Zabe frowns. “Look, I’m dying to tell you about it. Are you going to turn me in?”

“To whom?”

“Dr. Levi. Lady Vallance. Whoever.”

Ash gives her a sad smile. “It’s too bad you have to ask me,” he says.

“Yeah, well, are you?”

“No,” he says. “I don’t tell them anything but what they want to hear.”

“How can I trust you?”

Ash hesitates. “I’m not sure how much I can say right now. I’ve been feeling like… well, like the teachers have a way of… I don’t know, a way of monitoring us. So I’m not sure what I can tell you.”

“You’re right,” Zabe says grimly. “But not here. We can talk here.”

“How do you know?”

Zabe tells him about Orri, and the underground room, and the boxes and the cameras.

“Who could this Orri person be?” Ash asks. “This is so strange.”

“I know,” Zabe says.

“And why did he help you out?”

“Oh,” Zabe says. She hesitates. “Well, I kissed him.”

Ash turns to stare at her. “You did what?”

Zabe gets flustered. “I kissed him,” she repeats. “He said he would tell me when I could talk to you if I did something for him, so I kissed him.”

Ash turns away and looks down at his hands. “Huh,” he says. “What was it like?”

“It was nice,” Zabe says truthfully. “I liked it.”

“Oh,” Ash says. “Ok.”

“But I mean…” Zabe suddenly feels like she’s done something wrong. She doesn’t know how to explain it. “He’s a nice person. He thinks I’m a nice person. It’s not as weird as it sounds.”

“Good,” Ash snaps, “because it sounds really weird.”

“Well fine,” Zabe says, “but I did it for you, you know.”

“You kissed some other guy for me?”

“I was worried about you!” she says. “He told me that they made you take pills that would make you forget things!”

“I know,” Ash says. “I could tell they were. So I started hiding the pills, and not taking them, but I was pretending that they were working. And I knew they were watching, so I was pretending when you talked to me before.”

Zabe hesitates. “So you’re fine?”

“I guess so,” Ash says. He sighs. “I mean, I just… I think that they’re lying to us about so much more than we even suspect. I still think my parents are alive. I wish we could get some time alone, when we knew we weren’t being watched.”

“I could ask Orri,” Zabe says. “Maybe he can turn off the cameras or something.”

“You’re going to see him again?”

“Yeah, he wants me to…”

“Fine,” Ash snaps. “Whatever you want.” He stands up. “I’m going to bed.”

“Ash…”

“I’m really tired.”

“I don’t get it,” Zabe says. “Are we friends?”

Ash turns away from her and pulls on his clothes. “I don’t think you’ve ever said that to me before, but yeah,” he says. “We’re friends.”

“Then why are you mad at me?”

Ash turns back to her and sighs. “I guess because you went and had an adventure without me.”

“But I was worried about you!”

“I know.”

“So what was I supposed to do?”

“No,” Ash says, “you’re right.” He smiles at her, but he looks tired. “I’m sorry. It’s been really rough around here these past few months.”

“I know,” Zabe says. “For me too. I want to make it better.”

“Because we’re friends?” Ash asks.

Zabe nods. If she’d known that Ash wanted her to say the obvious, she would have said it long before. “You’re my best friend.”

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